225 years ago: The shame of Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair
Born in Scotland in 1736-ish, Arthur St. Clair was a professional soldier, at age 21 purchasing a commission in the newly formed 62nd (Royal American) Regiment (now 2nd Battalion, Royal Green Jackets), coming to the New World with Adm. Edward Boscawen’s fleet to fight the French in the colonies during the Seven Year’s War (know on this side of the pond as the French and Indian War). During the conflict he served under Amherst at Louisburg and Wolfe in Quebec. He had lots of campaigning behind him but had never led more than a company-sized unit.
When peace came, St. Clair resigned his commission from the shrinking regiment before Pontiac’s War and settled in Western Pennsylvania, able to buy large lots of land very cheap. A landed gentleman in the colonies, St. Clair cast his lot with the rebels and in 1776 accepted a command as colonel of the under-strength 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment, fighting six months later at the embarrassing skirmish that was the Battle of Trois-Rivières.
Although his baptism of fire in the War of Independence was a defeat, it nonetheless led to a promotion to general of brigade, a stint remolding the New Jersey militia, and St. Clair lending his support to the crossing of the Delaware and the resulting battles of Trenton and Princeton, which meant to a promotion to major general and command of strategically important Fort Ticonderoga.
Court-martialed for the loss of Ticonderoga the next year, St. Clair nonetheless was an ADC to Washington at Yorktown, an general without a command. After the war he served as President (of the Continental Congress) and governor of the Northwest Territory (what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, along with parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota).
In March 1791, at age 55, he was still one of the most experienced officers in the new country, even if his last command of troops in the field ended really badly more than a decade before and he had never led more than 300~ men prior.
However, St. Clair was placed over the 2,000 poorly armed and trained men of the First and Second Infantry Regiment, fleshed out by some local militias and levees, to take the field against 1,000 warriors from the Miami, Shawnee, Potawatomis and Delaware tribes.
The natives, led by Little Turtle of the Miamis, Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Buckongahelas of the Delawares; were fresh off the defeat of some 1,500 men of Brig. Gen. Josiah Harmar some six months before at present day Fort Wayne, Indiana, and, by the time St. Clair closed in with the warriors, his force had dwindled through desertion and low morale to just over 1,100– putting the two armies at roughly equal size when they met on 4 Nov. 1791 near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio.
It wasn’t pretty. St. Clair, suffering from gout, never really had a firm grip on his command who more or less resembled Braddock’s column from 1755.
The casualty rate was the highest percentage ever suffered by a United States Army unit and included St. Clair’s second in command. Of the 52 officers engaged, 39 were killed and 7 wounded; around 88% of all officers became casualties. After two hours St. Clair ordered a retreat, which quickly turned into a rout. “It was, in fact, a flight,” St. Clair described a few days later in a letter to the Secretary of War. The American casualty rate, among the soldiers, was 97.4 percent, including 632 of 920 killed (69%) and 264 wounded. Nearly all of the 200 camp followers were slaughtered, for a total of 832 Americans killed. Approximately one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been wiped out. Only 24 of the 920 officers and men engaged came out of it unscathed.
Indian casualties were about 61, with at least 21 killed.
The number of U.S. soldiers killed during this engagement was more than three times the number the Sioux would kill 85 years later at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The next day the remnants of the force arrived at the nearest U.S. outpost, Fort Jefferson, and from there returned to Fort Washington (Cincinnati).
It was St. Clair’s last command and spurred a host of changes in the Army, after an investigation which placed the blame on the quality of the troops rather than their commander. The engagement is known interchangeably as St. Clair’s Defeat, the Battle of the Wabash, the Columbia Massacre and the Battle of a Thousand Slain.